TAMPA — The University of South Florida didn't set out to launch a $600 million fundraising campaign — its most ambitious ever — in the funk of a recession.
But neither is it shying from the challenge.
"You can never take a break from fundraising," said Joel Momberg, chief executive officer of the USF Foundation. "You can never get the momentum back if you were to decide that we're just going to stop."
And momentum is what the "USF: Unstoppable" campaign is all about.
Already USF has quietly raised $317 million in gifts and pledges. Now it hopes to parlay that start, plus its growing research profile, its gains in student success, even its success on the football field, into tangible support.
"This is as good a time as any to move forward," USF president Judy Genshaft said. "There is really an energy that the university has."
As a young institution (just 53 years old), USF aims to capitalize on its willingness to experiment and try new things to attract donations and build its base of supporting alumni.
"It's not an unusual strategy for an institution that is up and coming," said Paulette Maehara, president and chief executive officer of the Association of Fundraising Professionals in Arlington, Va.
The campaign began about four years ago with what professional fundraisers call "the quiet phase." That's when the foundation lined up its leading donors to raise at least half the campaign's goal.
Some of the biggest early gifts came from campaign chairman Les Muma, the retired chief executive officer of the financial technology firm Fiserv Inc., and his wife, Pam.
The Belleair couple donated $6 million for neonatal medical research and to build an intensive care unit for newborns at Tampa General Hospital. They gave another $3 million for a new basketball practice facility.
Retired auto dealer Frank Morsani and his wife, Carol, donated another $10 million for a six-story patient care center, a football practice complex and a women's softball stadium.
Tuesday night marked the start of the public phase of the campaign. For that, USF transformed a large ballroom at the Marshall Student Center into what looked like a smart, well-lighted nightclub, complete with a student jazz band.
Standing just outside the ballroom, Les Muma was confident of the campaign's prospects.
"It's slow now," he said of the economy, "but it's not always going to be slow."
Organizers hope to wrap up the campaign in three to four years, though Momberg said no hard deadline had been set.
"What we've heard from donors is probably the best thing we could hear at this point in time: that they are not unwilling to give," he said. In this economic climate, working with donors just requires flexibility.
Last year, the campaign raised 47 percent of its donations through outright gifts, while 25 percent of its support came in pledges and 11 percent was from planned gifts such as bequests.
In all, the campaign seeks to raise:
• $145 million for academic enhancements such as endowed chairs.
• $155 million for capital projects such as new buildings.
• $115 million for the faculty.
• $130 million for scholarships.
• $50 million for other uses.
USF's endowment stands at nearly $300 million, down from a pre-recession high of $389 million.
For the new campaign, USF hopes to build its base of support among its own graduates.
USF has about 225,000 alumni, of whom about 17,000 gave to the university last year, accounting for 37 percent of total gifts.
To engage more donors, active alums have already hosted a series of parties for local graduates in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Sarasota. North Carolina saw four such parties last month.
Next month, Momberg said, Obama administration drug czar Gil Kerlikowske, an alum of both USF and the St. Petersburg Police Department, is scheduled to host a party in Washington, D.C.
USF: Unstoppable is the third comprehensive campaign in USF's history, and is the biggest by far. The two previous campaigns ended in 1991, raising $117 million, and 2001, raising $256 million.
But Florida has seen bigger. The private University of Miami wrapped up a $1.4 billion capital campaign early last year. And the University of Florida, which has a $1.38 billion endowment, is in the middle of a campaign to raise $1.5 billion by 2012.
The University of Florida's campaign so far has raised more than $959 million, 68 percent of it in cash and cash equivalents, and is hearing the same kind of response from donors that USF officials describe. More often, donors are talking about pledges as opposed to outright gifts.
"They're still making commitments, they're just making different kinds of commitments," said Carter Boydstun , UF's senior associate vice president for development and director of the Florida Tomorrow campaign.
At USF, the foundation's board discussed whether to wait for the economy to improve before announcing the public phase of its campaign. But Muma said board members didn't want to lose momentum.
"The foundation board said, 'Move forward,' " Genshaft said. "So here we go."